Albert Einstein lived through the 1918 pandemic, but to my knowledge he never used examples from that to demonstrate relativity. Which seems like a missed opportunity, because who among us hasn’t made a comment about time having no meaning over the last couple of years?
How do I know if something happened last week or a year ago if there have been few events or social sign posts in between? How do we mark important life events if we can’t mark important life events? I have a friend who’s decided to just keep celebrating her 49th birthday until she can celebrate her 50th properly. I approve.
The same goes for working, but with some added complexities. In the past when I’ve worked on teams based in offices, when someone left the company we would mark the occasion – a collection to buy a farewell gift, a card, team lunch, etc.
But last year I changed jobs and there was none of that. Sure, my team was on other continents, so a team lunch together had some logistical issues, but there were other circumstances in play as well.
I didn’t even change which laptop I was working on for the first while. I just used a new email address to log in to Google Workspace and Slack.
I’d been at that job for seven years, which is the longest stint of my professional career. That ending was a bit discombobulating. I know a couple of people who’ve recently left jobs or companies they were with for 20+ years. Imagine making that transition with little to no fanfare or acknowledgement. A lot of life happens in 20 years. A lot of identity can get connected to a job or company you’ve been with that long.
I’d be very curious to see how long it takes those folks to make the “we” to “they” transition – how long it takes to start referring to the old job/team/company as “they” rather than “we.” Anecdotally, I think the more that you wanted to leave, the faster that change tends to happen.
Think of the amount of muscle memory you’d have developed for driving to that one specific office. The familiar landmarks on the way. The good gas station. The Tim Hortons with the faster drive-thru. Perhaps working from home is a small blessing on that front. Least no one’s driving the wrong way in the morning. Although, 10 months after the fact I still type “DNS” sometimes when that’s not the initialism I want.
I have sympathy for people whose big work changes include many layers to navigate, too. Like, we can handle change, but when changes start stacking up very quickly and we don’t really have time to process them, it can make even smaller things harder to process or cause undue amounts of stress. (Especially when pandemic curveballs also keep coming at any time.)
For a tech example, you’re getting used to a new job, team, boss, work responsibilities and everything else in the new company. And then on top of it, you have to deal with a switch from Mac to Windows or Office 365 to Google Workspace. From what I’ve witnessed, taking away Outlook from some people is like extracting a vital organ – without anesthesia.
Yes, I am aware that compared to some jobs, these are privileged problems to have. But really, does anyone need more sources of stress or additional cognitive load these days?
Although, as much as current conditions can make leaving a job and starting a new one weird, awkward and harder, I kind of wonder if those same conditions aren’t among those making it more likely as well.
As noted, working the way many of us have been can be isolating. Not everyone connects, communicates and collaborates well remotely or online. And even if they could, things like frequent interruptions, a lack of focus, even varied time zones don’t help.
People may already end up feeling disconnected from team, culture or even the satisfaction of doing good work. Those things and more can make you start thinking about your broader work satisfaction and goals. They could make it easier to decide to make a change. I mean, how much can you fear the unknown when the unknown has already been sucker-punching you season after season?
What about the physical logistics, though? As I mentioned, initially when I changed jobs I was still using my own laptop. So then when my new work one arrived, I basically just set up a second workstation for Work Stuff. There was nothing I needed to return, but that’s not the norm a lot of the time.
Shutting down and deleting ex-employees’ accounts is straightforward enough to do. But swapping out physical equipment can get interesting, especially these days when shipping is often a crapshoot.
I know one person whose new laptop had not yet arrived on her first day of work. And heard of another guy whose company (that he was leaving) never gave him any information or instructions on returning his equipment. This seems like perhaps poor security policy or lax practice.
What if you do ship stuff back and it gets lost in transit? Or what if someone just decides to… not return stuff? What if they live on another continent? Some companies’ IT setup can lock down or wipe equipment in such a situation, but not all. While you can shut down accounts, if you’re not in the same room, you can only wipe the contents of a computer if it’s powered up and online. Would local police on another continent even care about a purloined corporate laptop or phone?
What if the situation is a layoff that includes a bunch of people? What if some of them are among those who would otherwise have been charged with cleaning up after the layoff?
In the chaos, mistakes can be made, though two years into the pandemic, I imagine companies generally have this stuff figured out – both on the IT side and the layoff side, unfortunately.
All in all, not exactly the kind of “closure” I was referring to, but still necessary.
In the absence of meaningfully marking and winding down jobs and relationships with work people in what were traditional ways, perhaps we just have to decide to figure it out ourselves. (A perfect time for that good bottle of wine you’ve been saving.) Or perhaps by taking time we might need, and making the fuzziness of relativity during this time work for us.
So perhaps you didn’t get an overly sweet grocery-store slab cake and a card full of scribbles you can barely read. It’s still a good opportunity to mark the occasion in the way that means the most to you.
And hey, you also get an opportunity to break bad habits and dump thought patterns that don’t serve you well. Groundhog Day is a great movie and all, but you don’t want to feel like you’re in it when you sit down at your desk for the first day at the new job.
M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org